A guide to understanding asthma

Abi Jackson says a proper diagnosis is crucial for asthma.

IT’S ONE of our most common long-term medical condition — but are you aware of all the signs and symptoms of asthma?

Currently, more than 470,000 people in Ireland have asthma, which is caused by inflammation of the bronchi (small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs), and anybody can develop it, though it does tend to be more common in people with a family history and/or other allergies.

Concerned that you could have asthma? See your doctor — as a proper diagnosis is crucial, so that you can get the advice and medication required to manage it. COMPLEX CONDITION

* Asthma varies from person to person: Asthma isn’t a ’one size fits all’ condition. “The most important and interesting thing about asthma is it varies; minute to minute, day to day, month to month and year to year, so it can be quite difficult for people to spot whether something’s going wrong, or it’s just a normal fluctuation,” says asthma specialist Dr Samantha Walker.

* The role of triggers: Asthma symptoms are usually brought on — or made worse — by ‘triggers’. Common triggers include being exposed to allergens (like pollen, animal hair, house dust mites) and chemicals (like aerosols), as well as exercise, changes in temperature, cigarette smoke, and emotional triggers like stress. Symptoms may also be worse at night or first thing in the morning. “If you think of asthma as something where your airways are very twitchy, then every time you encounter something that’s going to irritate them, you’ll experience symptoms,” explains Walker.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

* Wheezing doesn’t always indicate asthma, but it’s usually a common feature. A high-pitched rattle or whistling sound when breathing may be a sign. Walker notes, however, that wheezing can be common and normal in the under-fives. Also, not everybody with asthma wheezes.

* A persistent cough, when there seems to be no other cause — for example, you don’t have a cold — and which gets worse around triggers, could be a sign of asthma. Walker says: “It’s not like when somebody’s got a cold, where they bring up mucus and the cough sounds bubbly. It’s a drier cough, like your breath catching.”

* Shortness of breath: this is often the symptom that confuses people most, as breathlessness can have many causes. Everybody gets out of breath to some degree during strenuous exercise, for instance, and people who are unfit will experience this more easily. However, Walker says we have a tendency to put increased breathlessness down to getting older when it could be a sign of asthma. “If activities you wouldn’t normally expect to get out of breath doing — like running for a bus, gardening, moderate exercise or walking upstairs — are suddenly, or increasingly, leaving you feeling breathless, it could be due to asthma.

*Tightness in the chest: Another common symptom is a feeling of tightness around the chest. Again, this may be due to a number of causes, but it’s not a symptom that should ever be ignored — particularly if it occurs with breathlessness. Some people describe it as feeling as though there’s a tight band around their chest.

* www.asthma.ie 


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